Rebuilding New York--Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–An unemployed woman living in the Silicon Alley scene here suddenly found herself in the week of Sept. 11 placing all her Internet and technical savvy at the service of the Red Cross and the United Way, two very old-fashioned but vital rescue agencies. Neither she nor the agencies are likely to ever be the same.

Like many who worked in Manhattan’s dot-com industry, Eileen Shulock had been unemployed since May after being laid off as a vice president for the Knowledge Strategies Group. She filled some of her time as the unpaid director of the New York chapter of Webgrrls International, an organization that serves as a virtual and actual meeting ground for women interested in using the Web. But basically she had spent the summer slacking–the industry’s term for taking it easy.

By the Monday after Labor Day, she had decided to get serious about finding a job and even bought a paper-based appointment book to help her in job-hunting personal networking.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Shulock was in her Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her husband and dog, preparing to leave for a brainstorming session with another unemployed new media writer.

In a split second, she decided that neither slacking nor job hunting was for her–she had to help. After being turned away as a blood donor–as many were at first–she came up with a better idea.

With her blond hair fashionably streaked and tousled, her eyes peering out of square eyeglass frames, she sips a Diet Coke in a downtown cafe and recalls the moment when she realized her role in the rescue effort.

She E-mailed Webgrrls, Set Up Internet Volunteer Service

"I had to find something to do," Shulock says. After phoning the Red Cross to find out the details on volunteers still needed, she e-mailed her list of 4,000 tech-savvy New York Webgrrls, asking if they would donate their technical skills or anything else to help out the Red Cross.

And then she got back to the Red Cross, and said, "You’ve got a list of 4,000 Webgrrls at your service."

Within minutes, the Red Cross technology department called her and asked, "’Can you really have 10 people here in an hour?’"

Shulock found many, many more than 10. Within three days, she received more than 600 phone calls from Webgrrls who wanted to help.

"My list was full of technical people who knew how to act as project managers with little or no direction," says Shulock.

"The Red Cross really needed people to help out in a technical way. They had thousands of volunteers, but they needed people who could do data entry and process papers on line. They also needed people who they didn’t need to explain how to operate a computer or how to go through the thousands and thousands of e-mails the Red Cross received after Sept. 11."

Within days, the United Way called–also in need of technical help in volunteer placement.

Her days of slacking, or even having use for a paper-based calendar, were over.

Her life became filled with ringing phones, full voice-mail boxes and a constant barrage of e-mails as Shuluck aimed to connect volunteers with needs in the wake of the terrorist attack that left as many as 4,400 dead, missing and presumed dead.

Studied at Fashion Institute of Technology, Worked for Ann Taylor

Shulock’s sense of community might have sprung from her small-town origins. She is the youngest of three children who grew up in Jeanette, Penn., just 40 miles away from the site where the third hijacked plan crashed. Shulock was drawn to New York just out of high school to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Eileen ShulockAfter graduation, she spent eight years working for Ann Taylor in its merchandising department, charged with forecasting trends in the fashion industry. She left the retail business and searched for a way to pursue her interest in new media. That led to her joining Webgrrls–then a small group of like-minded women.

Working her way into the Web-based world, Shulock landed tech consulting jobs for Knowledge Strategies and acted as managing editor for Web Digest for Marketers. She also co-authored a paper-based book, "Essential Business Tactics for the Net," now in a second edition.

Now, she is consumed by running her Web-based volunteer placement service. The need to connect volunteers with needs remains a daunting task.

"I was working 16-hour days, seven days a week," she said. "The past five weeks have just been a blur."

Many of Shulock’s volunteers have been entering the information on paper into computerized databases: missing person’s reports, donation contacts and volunteer information. Others have made electronic files for the thousands of e-mails sent to the Red Cross, so that the ones sending prayers and thank-you notes could be separated from those offering more practical assistance, including individuals and corporations wishing to donate time, money or machinery.

When the 30-something Webgrrl realized her resources outstripped the need, she called a friend, Alison Flemming, president of The Hired Guns Inc., an agency providing technical support to companies. The two put their lists together and soon volunteer sign-up via the Web was running twenty-four-seven.

Matching Volunteers to Charities, Police and Fire Departments

Shulock and Flemming teamed up with other tech companies in the city and the result was Silicon Alley Cares, a volunteer and benefit site supported by a consortium of individuals, companies and organizations. They provide assistance, volunteer information and a Web site to gather and distribute relief information.

"E-mail is great because it’s so immediate," says Shulock. "We can have tech people down at relief sites with an hour’s notice."

Her client list now also includes the Salvation Army and the New York fire and police departments. With the urgent need to feed relief volunteers, Shulock also hooked up Chefs With Spirit, a relief organization, to the Internet.

Despite abandoning a job search to assist the rescue effort, Shulock may still be on the cutting edge–but in a very different world. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, has called for a communications infrastructure, a technical equivalent to the National Guard, so that communications can be assured during national emergencies.

If Wyden’s beliefs catch on, Shulock may find herself in the forefront of assisting in the creation of such an emergency communications system.

Meanwhile, she may have to return to filling that paper-based calendar and networking with colleagues on her own behalf.

"I believe that things happen for a reason. Maybe that’s why I was unemployed at the time. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we weren’t there. But now I have to look for a job," she says, with a rueful smile. Shulock is planning to pursue her media writing and e-commerce site building and consulting.

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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer in Brookyn, New York. She has written for the Daily News, and New York magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.